Washington and Moscow are taking seriously an offer North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il made to Russian President Vladimir Putin in July to terminate Pyongyang's testing, development, and production of long-range ballistic missiles in exchange for international assistance with satellite launches. There has been confusion as to whether Kim made the offer in good faith since August 14, when South Korean media reported that Kim said he had been joking when he made the suggestion to Putin.
The United States sent Ambassador Wendy Sherman to Moscow August 28 to discuss North Korea's missile program and Kim's apparent offer. Sherman met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov and Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov. A State Department official said that the two sides had "good discussions." The United States and Russia agree that it is "important to explore" North Korea's offer, and for now, Washington is "taking it seriously," according to the official.
Putin had made the first-ever visit of a Soviet or Russian leader to Pyongyang on July 19, stopping en route to Okinawa, Japan, for a meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations. After a two-hour meeting, Putin told the Russian news agency Interfax that "North Korea on the whole is ready to use exclusively other nations' rocket technologies if it receives rocket boosters for peaceful space exploration."
Initially, the precise conditions of the proposal were unclear, and U.S. officials were concerned that North Korea wanted to import a booster-rocket capability, which could be used to launch weapons as well as satellites. The potential threat of North Korean ICBMs is one of Washington's primary justifications for pursuing deployment of a limited national missile defense system. Russia has vehemently opposed the deployment of such a system, which would require amending the 1972 ABM Treaty, and has rejected the idea that North Korea presents a threat.
State Department spokesmen Adam Ereli told reporters July 20 that the United States was "very interested" in North Korea's reported proposal, as long as it was done by "other countries, using launch services from existing launch providers under strict technology safeguards."
On July 22, Putin presented an extensive account of his discussions with Kim Jong-Il to the heads of state at the G-8 summit. In a press conference later that day, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov specified that the missile deal was "not a matter of launching from North Korean territory, but from the territory of other countries."
The following week, at the July 28 Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Bangkok, Thailand, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attempted to clarify the details of the Putin announcement with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun—the highest level U.S.-North Korean meeting to date. In describing her talks with Paek as "a substantively modest but symbolically historic step away from the sterility and hostility of the past," Albright admitted that she was "not able to glean" any further details about the missile offer from her North Korean counterpart.
The Washington Post reported in an August 3 article that in an exchange of "confidential letters" following the Putin-Kim meeting, North Korea had reaffirmed its offer to end its missile program and suggested that "concerned countries" pay for two or three satellite launches per year.
However, at an August 13 luncheon in Pyongyang, Kim reportedly informed an audience of 46 South Korean publishers and broadcasters that his missile proposal to Putin was merely meant "in humor, while talking about science and state-of-the-art technologies," according to the Korea Times. English excerpts from the lunch published in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo quoted Kim as saying, "I told Russian President Putin that we will stop developing rockets when the United States comes forward and launches our satellites."
Sherman will discuss the issue further with South Korea and Japan when she represents the United States in Seoul at a September 1 meeting of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, which was set up for the three countries to coordinate policy on North Korea.